BELLEVUE, Wash. (KOMO) – A dentist from Bellevue in Washington state is accused of burning boxes with protective medical masks and gear in an attempt to destroy his office even as local doctors scramble to get those supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the second arson at the office in consecutive days, police allege.
Firefighters were first called to a fire at the suspect's A to Z Dental office on the afternoon of March 23, according to court documents. The office was part of a three-story building that housed 28 other businesses. There, they found three separate small fires burning in the office and the smell of accelerants, prosecutors said.
The flames were quickly doused and arson detectives spent the rest of the day investigating the fires.
But the next evening, firefighters were called back to the same office and this time found five separate small fires set throughout the dentist office amid the strong smell of a lighter-fluid type accelerant, with a nearby oxygen tank open and spewing gas, investigators said. The source of the flames in several cases were boxes of protective medical masks and gowns, according to prosecutors.
The fires had set off a sprinkler system and led to heavy water damages to offices below, including one orthodontist's office that was still occupied at the time of the fire. The damage was estimated at $1 million.
The dentist had called 911 during the March 24 fire to report he had accidentally dropped an oxygen tank while cleaning up and it had caught fire, prosecutors said. But investigators say the evidence led them to believe he in fact had intentionally set the fires. After getting a search warrant, police searched the dentist's home with a bomb-sniffing dog which led officers to a suitcase full of clothes that smelled of accelerant. Detectives say the dentist was the last one in the building, he admitted he was the cause of the fire, there was ample evidence the fires were intentionally set, and he had a motive in that he was in the process of being evicted for failing to pay rent, according to court documents.
He was also a suspect in an ongoing investigation for arson at his previous dental office three years ago, prosecutors said.
The dentist, 54-year-old Mohammed "Matt" Rafie, was arrested as the suspect that same day and has since been charged with first degree arson. A judge originally set bail at $25,000, but prosecutors asked the judge to increase the bail to $100,000.
"The defendant’s actions in this case reflect a desperate man willing to put the lives of others at risk to get what he wants," deputy King County prosecutor Aubony Burns wrote in court documents. "When he failed at burning his office down on the 23rd of this month, he tried again the next day."
Still, Rafie posted bail and was released from jail the next day, police said.
Prosecutors say they were particularly shocked that Rafie would burn such precious medical equipment amid an urgent need during the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide shortages.
"A medical professional himself, the defendant’s choice to use these precious items in the middle of a worldwide pandemic adds to the appalling nature of his crimes," Burns said.
Washington state received 500,000 n95 masks and 130,000 surgical masks last week, but officials said they still need more equipment to battle an emerging virus that has killed at least 225 people statewide and infected tens of thousands.